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Reflection: Audiophile

-- by William Caraher I like the title of this blog because the publisher makes it clear that being an audiophile is like having a problem. I like thinking about it as a reality problem. As an audiophile we constantly ask ourselves how do we experience, and justify, reality. I had a lovely "low-high-end" system for over a year. It consisted of a pair of imposing Focal Chorus 836vs and a McIntosh MC275 amp. My music came from an almost-vintage Nakamichi CD4 cd player (which I got from my parents in 1992 for earning a 4.0 GPA in college) or from a MacMini through a Cambridge DacMagic DAC. It was a fine thing: lovely to behold and capable of making a delightful racket. I think, all told, it set me back around $10,000 once I added in cables and various other bits and bobs. My enjoyment of this system was only occasionally interrupted by the gnarled head of reality that would mutter that my stereo cost more than a factory worker in Bangladesh, or farmer in the Central African Republic, might expect to earn in a lifetime. I would usually beat back the creep of guilt by pointing out to myself that I worked hard to be born in a first world country, to upper middle class parents, and to attend private schools and universities. My birth alone entitled me to this system. Despite the brilliant logic, eventually I gave in and liquidated the system. I helped my "stereo guy" move the equipment into his mini van and watched it depart. I was buoyed by the knowledge that some of my equipment made it into a local state university's band room. I was sharing the music. Spreading the love. I then retreated to a system that was worth, perhaps, 10% of that other: a refurbished Peachtree Decco 65 and a pair of well-loved Energy bookshelf speakers (I kept the Nakamichi and the MacMini!).

My wife always tells me that she can’t really hear the difference, or at least not 90% of the difference. Fair enough. But I can, and it’s my stereo. And I want my music to sound realistic! Not so real that I get guilty, but real enough where I can close my eyes and hear the fingers on the guitar strings, the roundness of a note on a grand piano, and I can wonder whether a slight studio noise (like Miles Davis’s famous chair creaks) was in the other room or on the recording.

I read the popular literature on audiophilia and ponder the benefits of transparent reproduction. I think transparency is fetishized. Transparent speakers show the flaws of amplifiers. Transparent amplification reveals the flaws in the recording. Transparent recording reveal flaws in room acoustics and musicianship. I’m sure that elite musicians seek – as great sculptors of yore – simply to make transparent the sounds inherent in their instruments. It is, to heap metaphor upon metaphor, turtles all the way down.

But, of course, producing realistic music in the comfort of my living room challenges reality in its own way. Throughout most of history, music has been a social exercise embedded in religious rituals, social events, and even economic and military activities. Listening to music in the solitary comfort of my living room, hunkered down in my most relaxing chair, hardly represents a realistic engagement with music. The chatters and bustle of other people, the irregular acoustics of the moving human forms, and the rituals, engagements, and activities that so often operate in the foreground of the music that I now savored abstracted from anything approaching “real” conditions. At times, I feel like my appreciation of my favorite albums, tracks, discs, or streams depends upon a suspension of all reality that is only a step removed from the dry-as-dust technical descriptions of audio reproduction that appear in my favorite audiophile magazines.

So, here I am. Located somewhere between the heart-wrenching economic and social realities of our capitalist, post-colonial catastrophe, and the fictive reality of musical reproduction. There is something contemplative about audiophilia, though, and maybe that’s its benefit to society. Anything that can push us to contemplate reality can’t be all bad, right?

Get your Occasional now

17 Comments on Reflection: Audiophile

  1. Alan Morgan // July 18, 2013 at 6:18 PM //

    I do find the self induced illusion of the audiophile during his listening sessions to be a fascinating subject. I have my moments when I listen to my A rig system somewhat comprable to Bill’s and pretend I am at that french bistro bar listening to Jazz or some urban bar with maybe Keb Mo on stage and I glorify my rig (in my mind) for being able to put me there. But the A rig is rarely used with most of my buddies when they come over. That pleasure goes to the rec room system downstairs with subs that can blast Rock n Roll while we drink beer and tell stories about the stupid stunts we have indulged in during our life. That is the system that feeds another part of my soul and I dare say the home theater B rig brings the most fun memories and musical times.
    It does not take a decent system to put you in the audilophile or a musical have fun moment. I can remember sitting in a coffee shop in Luray Virginia and this shop had a nice sounding maybe $100 speaker system. I still remember enjoying the music being played and my mind was filling in all the audiophile pristineness to enhance the setting and atmosphere while observing the patrons of this establishment. That musical moment is still brought back as a special part of my trip to Luray and the memory rivals those listening sessions I have experienced with the A rig. At the end of the day it only takes your imagination, the right setting and a willingness to accept the equipment for what it is to produce the illusion and musical fantasy equal to the equipment we spent so much on to achieve thie same end.

  2. This is my favorite audiophile website and my first post. I actually find nothing wrong, per se, in folks having really expensive gear. If they have the means, great – those dollars are going to support the manufacturers, their employees and families. Even if it is made in China – that factory worker’s standard of living is better than if there were no work, as appalling as it may be to those of us blessed to be born in the USA. Where I have a problem is when people get hung up on having a certain “name” brand for status. There is so much great value, high-performance gear out there. I have my Tekton Lore-S speakers (shout out to Part Time Audiophile for turning me on to them!) running off an Emotiva 200-watt amp, Mac Mini server and Audioquest Dragonfly DAC. Maybe about $3k worth of gear not including the Mac. To my ears it sounds fantastic – every bit as good as many of the high $$$ systems I hear at my local audio shop.

    • Fozzie,

      Awesome system!! I totally agree with your sentiments about system value, names, and cost. My next post (if our esteemed editor likes it!) will be about my “little” system that provides me with hours of pleasure and my effort to reconstruct my grown up system in a way that won’t break the bank.

      Bill

      • Thanks Bill. That will be an interesting read! Looking forward to it!

  3. firedog // July 18, 2013 at 7:56 AM //

    I can’t argue with your sentiments – they’re yours.
    But the guilt doesn’t make sense to me if you single out audiophillia. Everything in a Western lifestyle is orders of magnitude above that of a person in a poor country. Housing, medicine, food, clothing, transportation. So unless you are rejecting it all and going back to a vastly lower standard of living, I don’t really see the point in singling out your hobby in this area.

    • firedog,

      I guess I thought this approach was appropriate only because audiophiles (myself included!) have this interest in re-creating a kind of reality through their systems. So what I was trying to do – and perhaps I was more literary than logical – was to observe that our efforts to create reality (sometimes articulated as “transparency”) stood in interesting contrast with the suspension of reality that must of us enjoy when we indulge our audiophilia.

      It’s interesting to me that people seem to be more interested in my rather hamfisted social critique than my suggesting that historically music has enjoyed a social function and only in the last century have we taken this social medium and turned it into a private indulgence. Or that some of the obsession with transparency among audiophiles contrasts with the desire to “hear tubes” or enjoy different types of systems (like Mr. Parttime Audiophile’s lovely system two: http://parttimeaudiophile.com/2013/07/05/system-two-borderpatrol-arrives/). My point was simply that audiopilia in all is wondrousness often involves reflecting on what we think about as real and what really matters. After all, it may be turtles all the way down!

      Thanks for the feedback all the same!

      Bill

  4. Having worked in the live entertainment and cultural sector for 25+ years I find that I have less gear as time goes on. I have a trusty Rega, humble Denon integrated, some seriously vintage Acoustic Research speakers and some ancient cabling from Naim. All of this is 20 years old, or more. I enjoy music more and more, with each passing day. No new components involved.

    I prefer to go to gigs or concerts, take my partner, friend, parent, sibling, niece or nephew. It is all about the shared experience – for me anyhow. Being present at a live event is “reality”. Rarely, are recordings a facsimile of what you experience at a live event. By definition, they cannot be.

    Maybe, more importantly, the psychoacoustic memory you acquire of a live high-resolution experience, will inform your auditory response to that particular music. You will always “hear” the dynamic breadth, timbre, intonation, etc of that piece of music from then on. Regardless, of what equipment you listen on. Even via an old AM radio, in mono. That is how “reality” works.

    Experience more – live, share with friends and family. The rewards are numerous. To you, your guest, the artist, the production company and the venue.

  5. Dave Hallerman // July 17, 2013 at 1:56 PM //

    I went to college in that “downtrodden, corporate city in upstate New York,” and I would imagine that buying that company’s products helps those people who live in that Southern Tier city live a little better. Both those people who work at the manufacturer, and those people who work at the stores those audio-company employees shop at.

    Capitalism has its flaws, but when it works, it does go around.

  6. I applaud your social awareness, but giving up your audio system is not a solution to various problems around the world. Kind of like when mom made you eat broccoli because there were “starving kids in India (or some other seemingly far-flung country).” Eating (or not eating) the broccoli did nothing for those kids. Much better to fight for the kind of substantive, structural changes that really would make a social and economic impact around the world, a kind of continuing “Occupy” movement. You can still listen to music while doing this.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // July 17, 2013 at 10:38 AM //

      I won’t speak for Bill, but I do have to confess that there’s a thread in there that resonates pretty strongly — and that’s the sheer expense a full-on audiophile system might cost. I wander into a show room at CES, for example, and I see half-a-million dollars in audio gear set up for my listening enjoyment. That’s a staggering amount of money! I can’t even imagine how much money I’d have to have to make that kind of investment okay — and even then, I’d wonder if that money couldn’t have been better spent. Like stocking the local food bank. Or helping a dying kid get their last wish. Or saving for my own kids’ college fund, much less, my own retirement. I can see how luxury purchases like an amp or a watch or a car can seem frivolous and indulgent, if not outright immoral. Again, not saying Bill was going there, but I can see how many would-be audiophiles do.

    • I completely agree (especially when we add in the complexity of many genuinely high-end equipment being produced in China or even in downtrodden, corporate cities in upstate New York). The issue is, of course, where does a live-able reality intersect with our own personal accountability.

      As a pleasant aside my original text read “I would usually beat back the creep of guilt by pointing out to myself that I worked hard to be born in a first world country, to upper middle class parents, and to attend private schools and universities. My birth alone entitled me to this system.”

      So there are lines in our negotiation of reality.

      Bill

      • Part-Time Audiophile // July 17, 2013 at 12:22 PM //

        Sorry, Bill — I re-edited to return the text to your original. Was trying to help the flow there.

    • On no, here we go again. Can’t we just stick to posting musings regarding this wonderful hobby without constantly being vectored into politics? If you want to defecate on the hood of a police car that’s your business but surely you can find a more suitable forum for your liberal beliefs.

      • Part-Time Audiophile // July 17, 2013 at 12:20 PM //

        While the image you offer is … curious … I think the struggle with the sometimes-significant investment in a hi-fi system is entirely on-point. Not sure why that has be “liberal” or even political, or has anything to do with defacing a police car, but perhaps I missed a step there.

      • Gavin,

        Just to be clear, I didn’t say that you should feel guilty or behave as I did!! I just said that I felt guilty and this motivated me to (temporarily and perhaps ironically) liquidate my stereo. Moreover, I didn’t suggest that anyone else needed to reach the same conclusions that I reached. In fact, I said that one of the great thing about our great hobby is that it compels us to reflect on reality – both sonically and socially. There are plenty of magazine articles that opine on the social costs and benefits of American and European equipment makers outsourcing production to China. I’ve benefited from this very practice when I’ve purchased good equipment at lower costs, but we’re all aware of the social costs of these practices to our hobby.

        In any event, just because I have liberal guilt, doesn’t mean everyone needs to have liberal guilt!

        Bill

  7. Sounds like its time for another McIntosh, your not the only one that has tried a less emotional system, only to discover you actually miss audiophile sound.

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